It was just after five as I walked down Third Avenue towards Benaroya Hall. Before I saw the concert hall, I saw the line of people. It wrapped all the way around the building, and it was so long that the Jackbox Games folks had been brought in to entertain the crowd. The people at the front of the line had probably camped out since the start of the day to get the best seats. The people at the back had probably still been waiting for over two hours. There were no tickets, after all, so the entire show is first come, first served. The average Seattlite would have no idea why this throng of geeks had surrounded the prestigious home of the Seattle Symphony.
Even the average PAX-goer would be forgiven for scratching their head at this assembly. Waiting for hours just to see some people play D&D? And thousands of people do this every year?
But the truth is, this is no common game of D&D. This show was evening ten years in the making. It was the pinnacle of a decade of D&D media that began with a simple podcast between webcomic creators in 2008, and then blossomed into a multimedia hydra with the support of Hollywood actors, YouTube stars, and professional podcasters. Now, like a burgeoning D&D "cinematic universe," the show that started it all even featured crossover character cameos and interwoven plotlines, as the story of Strix and ´Dice, Camera, Action spilled into the story of Acquisitions Inc., and vice-versa, much to the audience's delight. It was an event that got Chris Perkins to sing as the audience snapped along in time!
But we haven't gotten there yet. We were still at the line, wrapping like a boa constrictor around the walls of Benaroya Hall.
At least it wasn’t raining.
Every PAX West (and at most other PAX events around the United States and Australia), Penny Arcade founders Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik team up with Chris Perkins of the D&D Team, gather a few more of their friends, and play a game of Dungeons & Dragons called “Acquisitions Incorporated” in front of thousands of ecstatic nerds. I touched upon the immensity of the live show in my history of Acquisitions Incorporated, but understanding the power of a live rendition of Acq Inc. deserves an article of its own. Here’s how it goes down at PAX West each year:
This line is a trial. It weeds out everyone who isn’t 100% dedicated to seeing the show by forcing all con-goers to not only brave the tempestuous Seattle weather, but also dedicate at least two precious hours—and likely more!—to simply… waiting. Since no PAX event has individual tickets (one pass gets you access to the entire convention), this line is a broadly egalitarian way of granting access to the most dedicated fans, not just those who camped an online ticket queue.
The line is not without its problems. Notably, disqualifies those unable to stand for long periods of time, and those with other physical and possibly mental disabilities, from seeing the live show. At least not without expending significant effort. If you’re at a future PAX and want to see Acq Inc. live but physically can’t handle the line, please reach out to Penny Arcade directly and see if they can provide assistance or let you into the venue early. For such a massive convention, PAX is pretty good about accommodating people with special physical and psychological needs.
The line doesn’t have to be all tedium, though. Nearly everyone in line has a Nintendo 3DS or Switch to pass the time. If you’re able to muster the courage and social energy, PAX lines are a great place to play games with strangers and even meet new friends. In my experience, most PAX-goers are really very nice people, though there are plenty who are shy or otherwise don’t want to socialize with strangers. Finding a straight-up jerk, though? That’s tremendously unlikely. Every year that I’ve waited in the Acquisitions Inc. line, I’ve found someone to chat with or game with, at least for a little bit. And if you find the guts to strike up conversation, you’ve already got something in common: you both love D&D! You both love it enough to wait in an hours-long line to go watch some folks play it onstage, anyway.
The line continues into the interior of Benaroya Hall, and while the waiting may continue, the change of scenery reinvigorates the entire throng. The lobby is warm, well-lit, and bustling with activity as PAX Enforcers run to and fro, Benaroya’s ushers guide the line, and—you’ll spot him only if you look closely—Greg Tito of Wizards of the Coast quickly and discreetly sweeps the VIP guests into the reserved section.
But this is only a prelude for the excitement to come. The final moment that streaming audiences miss out on entirely is the bated-breath tension and joy that runs through the concert hall like electricity in the half hour between the house opening and the curtain rising. The atmosphere was primed for excitement as hours of audience anticipation bubbled to a head, bolstered by video screens displaying cheeky quips and an intentionally cliché, movie-theater “pre-preview” trivia roll, and underscored by a pulsing mix of music from beloved video games.
Even after a long and exhausting day—the third jam-packed day of an exhilarating but energy-sapping convention—the thrumming energy of this room revitalized me. (It then overwhelmed me and I was exhausted again for a moment; I played a round of Overcooked 2 with my brother in the seats, took a little nap, and emerged refreshed and receptive to the crowd’s wild enthusiasm.)
I’ve watched Acquisitions Inc. games on YouTube before. I watched several to refresh my memory when preparing the oral history of the series last week. But I’ve never been as thoroughly entertained by those videos as I have been by being there in person. I’m glad the videos exist, because it makes the experience so much more accessible to the world. Not everyone can afford the time or money to attend PAX after all. But between the mild suffering of the line, the giddy joy of entering the Benaroya Hall lobby, and the breathless anticipation of chatting in the auditorium before the start of the show, I was thoroughly primed to be blown away by the show.
Minor spoilers below. You have been warned.
If you’ve ever been to a college football game (or as I said in the last Acq Inc. article, a Rocky Horror Picture Show shadowcast), you’ll have a sense of what it felt like to be in the audience during “Omin’s Three,” the PAX 2018 heist episode of Acquisitions Incorporated. Every little thing the players did received cheers and applause. Each cast member practically received a standing ovation when they strode onstage from the wings, dressed in full character costume. Every little joke they made during the game triggered an avalanche of laughter and applause—and this is not pure sycophantry, this was all genuine mirth.
Patrick, Holly, and the Penny Arcade crew are funny people on normal days, but the heightened energy of the theater transformed jokes which may have garnered a sensible chuckle or a mere sharp exhalation from a viewer at home into quips that provoked full-bellied laughter in the theater. And whenever the cast so much as uttered the words "green flame," (or "green booze," as the case may be), the entire crowd chanted the phrase back in floorboard-rattling unison as acid-green lights flashed across the stage and main floor. I felt like I was part of something far bigger than myself. And indeed I was. We all were. In this age of interconnected D&D storylines and crossover character cameos, each one of these shows are D&D history in the making, and the audience is every bit as important to it as the actors.
This was the tenor of the entire show. The hijinks were high from the word go, when Viari’s failed pickpocketing of Jarlaxle Baenre—immediately after the latter offered the former a job, no less!—ended with a poisoned dagger in his gut. Even when the story took a turn for the seriously dark as Omin Dran remorselessly sold the soul of a happy-go-lucky clone of Jim Darkmagic to a nameless pit fiend in the service of Asmodeus, Lord of Hell, the audience was along for the ride. There were no outbursts of applause, but the silent tension within the audience was palpable. It hung on each of Omin’s calculated words like icicles, and scorched at the edges of Jim’s pitiable outcries.
The entire evening was filled with show-stopping events like this. The Acq Inc. crew bungled their proposed heist at every possible turn, from accepting the job (see above), to casing the joint (which resulted in Viari being shrunk to a mere foot tall), to grifting the mark (which ended in a deadly fight with two pairs of succubi and incubi). The heist itself was such a magnificent trainwreck that the audience didn't even get to see the third and lowest layer of the gorgeous, hand-crafted model terrain created by Czar of Happiness. [Each one of those words is a link. Don't miss any!]
But the point of Acq Inc. isn't "success," per se. It's in creating ridiculous moments for the audience to laugh and cheer at. Chris Perkins breaking into a full West Side Story-style music number, complete with the audience snapping along in time, is a snapshot in time that no one in that theater will ever forget. Equally unforgettable moments included Jim getting dogpiled by fiendish men and women eager to smooch him to death, Strix transforming a pair of fiends into silky chickens, a naked, 1-foot-tall Viari covered in sticky absinthe ice-picking a tiefling in the throat, Omin emerging from the depths of Hell, and of course, Jim admitting Strix's power by revealing that attacking her, even while charmed, was a suicidal act.
And even as an introvert who is easily overwhelmed by interaction, feeling the joyful energy of a crowd of this size wash over me is intoxicating in a way that no Twitch stream or YouTube video could possibly replicate. If you have the means, I urge you to make this pilgrimage and make room in your PAX schedule to wait in line for the Acquisitions Inc. show. And there’s no better way to see live theater—for this truly is live, improv theater of the highest form—than from the seats of the theater itself.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his two feline interns, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.